In September 2015, Xi Jinping will make his first official state visit to the United States as the president of China. His summit with U.S. President Barack Obama will be an important opportunity for the two leaders to set the agenda for U.S.-China relations going forward.

In a new Q&A, Zhang Chuanjie outlines the opportunities and challenges facing the bilateral relationship as the two sides prepare for this summit. Zhang says that the countries will likely continue to emphasize areas of common interest and responsibly manage areas of disagreement. 

What is on the agenda for Xi Jinping’s trip to the United States?

Zhang Chuanjie
Zhang Chuanjie’s expertise and program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy examines the impact of Chinese public opinion on China’s foreign policy.
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Xi Jinping and Barack Obama will talk about many issues, like their previous discussions in Sunnylands, California, in June 2013 and in Beijing in November 2014. Based on past meetings, there are a number of items that they will likely discuss. 

They will reaffirm the goal of building a new type of great power relations and try again to clarify the details of this proposal that Xi and Obama first discussed in 2013. There is disagreement on both sides about how to implement this agenda. China emphasizes mutual respect for core interests, while the United States does not see how a vague definition of core interests can produce constructive results. Now the main goal is for both China as a rising power and the United States as an established power to commit to avoiding major conflicts.

Xi and Obama also will likely exchange ideas about a variety of specific policy issues related to the bilateral relationship. After Obama’s first visit to China in November 2009, the two governments released an extensive joint statement that lists almost 30 areas of potential cooperation. What is striking is the sheer number of issues that the two leaders can talk about. This is a very complicated relationship, and many practical measures can be taken to work together more. 

Judging from the document, prominent issues like energy, climate change, counterterrorism, people-to-people exchanges, aviation, space cooperation, and cybersecurity all could be discussed during Xi’s visit. He will bring select cabinet ministers and businesspeople to the United States with him to ensure that the outcomes of these discussions will be fruitful. 

Regional issues will be on the agenda as well. The two leaders will share their opinions about international challenges and may even coordinate their policy responses to such issues, including North Korea, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, and the P5+1 countries’ nuclear agreement with Iran. 

What is the significance of Xi Jinping’s visit to U.S.-China relations?

The timing of this visit is very significant, partly because of the U.S. presidential election cycle. Obama will be a lame-duck president, and next year there will be an election to select his replacement. Historically, lame-duck U.S. presidents have shown that they can be very productive in promoting a cooperative bilateral relationship. In 1999, then president Bill Clinton helped facilitate a bilateral trade agreement between the United States and China, which paved the way for China to join the WTO. More recently, then president George W. Bush came to Beijing for the 2008 Summer Olympics, signaling a healthy bilateral relationship near the end of his second term. 

Another reason that the September summit is significant is that the U.S.-China relationship has faced many recent challenges. It is not the first time. Ever since in the early 1970s, when then U.S. president Richard Nixon and then Chinese leader Mao Zedong decided to work toward reestablishing diplomatic relations between the two countries, the relationship has repeatedly faced difficult times and serious challenges. The hardest one is how to deal with people on both sides who object to the relationship or who want it to go in another direction. 

At such moments, resolve from the leadership on both sides could be very significant. It is extremely important that the top leaders reaffirm the overall direction of the bilateral relationship and reassure each other that both sides want to move it forward. This is an opportunity for the two leaders to make sure that competition and disputes do not in any way undermine long-term cooperation or the expectation of a healthy future relationship. 

In what areas have China and the United States identified common interests and avenues for cooperation?

The two countries have found many opportunities for cooperation, some of which have existed for a while. For example, the U.S.-China joint statement on climate change that was agreed to last November could serve as a model and driving force for facilitating and solidifying consensus at the UN Climate Change Conference that will be held in Paris in December. In the joint statement, the United States pledged to cut its carbon emissions to between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and China committed to curb the growth of its carbon emissions by around 2030. This is a very significant achievement, because in past climate-change talks, neither China nor the United States did what the other party expected. In this case, the U.S.-China climate-change agreement could have very positive spillover effects, and could perhaps even lead to a multilateral agreement. 

The United States and China are also collaborating on regional security issues and working together in international forums. The July 2015 agreement between the P5+1 countries and Iran regarding the latter’s nuclear program is a good example. Both U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wanted to hold talks and expected an agreement to be reached.  

There are also many bilateral forums for discussion, like the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue, as well as people-to-people exchanges and dialogue about cultural exchanges. These are all things that carry the bilateral relationship forward. 

In what areas do mutual trust and cooperation between the United States and China remain a challenge?

In recent years, there seem to have been more quarrels between the two sides on a variety of issues, including the South China Sea and cyberattacks. As Chinese scholar He Yafei put it, the bilateral relationship faces a “deficit of trust.” Yet one important feature of the relationship is that, in the late 1970s, the United States and China established a principle of agreeing to disagree so that disputes don’t sink the overall relationship.

Traditionally, people think the military-to-military relationship is the most difficult challenge, because military personnel focus on competition. Their duty is to prepare for worst-case scenarios—they don’t design frameworks for peace, but for potential conflict. In recent years, disagreements have become more politicized, and that is the difficult part. For example, when media outlets on both sides take remarks made by military planners out of context, it can easily give people the mistaken impression that the bilateral relationship is deteriorating. China and the United States do have disagreements, potential disputes, and even potential conflicts. The challenge is determining how to avoid politicizing the disagreements or exaggerating the degree of conflict, so as to make sure that the positive elements of cooperation remain the focus. 

In the past few years, there have been sizable achievements in the military-to-military relationship. In November 2014, the Chinese and U.S. militaries agreed to two confidence-building measures. One involves informing each other of important military events and exercises, and the other is a code of conduct for managing crises and reducing the risks of accidental air and maritime encounters. In the long term, these measures will help both sides gain confidence in each other’s military behavior. 

The South China Sea is also a source of friction, because the two countries do not agree on how to define territorial waters or navigational rights. The United States insists that these waters should be open to its military vessels, but China disagrees. Both sides do seem to agree that commercial vessels should be able to navigate freely.

China is quite ambiguous about its nine-dashed line, which it uses to designate its claims in the South China Sea. For some time, the United States has insisted that China be more transparent. But there are also people who think that maintaining ambiguity actually helps to stabilize the region. If China were to make a clear statement about its claims, it could trigger more conflicts and disputes. The disagreement also involves how to interpret sovereignty in cases of potential claims made based on artificial islands. 

Obama certainly will express U.S. concerns to Xi in September, but it is a positive sign that during the Shangri-La Dialogue in May 2015 both China and the United States seemed to tone down their rhetoric a little bit on the South China Sea. This reflects both sides’ intention not to let this issue derail the overall bilateral relationship.

More broadly, there is uncertainty of intentions on both sides. China suspects that the United States may have a policy of containing China, while the United States has concerns that China wants to rewrite international rules and drive the United States out of the region. Both of these long-standing views are speculative. What can be learned from history is how leaders can help overcome these suspicions and disagreements, and can still move the bilateral relationship forward. 

How will the U.S.-China bilateral relationship affect both countries’ ties with other regional actors going forward?

The U.S.-China relationship definitely affects the broader geopolitical landscape, particularly in terms of each side’s relationship with Russia. The Xi and Obama meeting is a good way to dispel rumors about a possible Russia-China alliance against the West, and especially against the United States. There are certainly tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship, particularly in the case of the Ukraine crisis. But neither Russia nor China is seeking to have such a pact. China is very unlikely to do so, although it is possible that difficulties in the U.S.-China relationship naturally might push China a little bit closer to Russia. 

The meeting could also affect the behavior of U.S. allies in East and Southeast Asia in terms of territorial disputes. The tense atmosphere in the South China Sea is not really a one-sided case of China becoming more assertive, as the West has portrayed it. All of the relevant parties have become more assertive, including Vietnam and the Philippines. China’s recent construction of artificial islands is largely a response to the behaviors of other parties. The U.S. role is crucial, because whatever the United States says about this issue could potentially be misinterpreted by some countries as the United States giving them backing to be more assertive. 

What China and the United States choose to do may have worldwide implications, so both countries must be responsible for their actions, the consequences of their bilateral cooperation, and the consequences of their interactions with other countries in the region.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series.